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How to nail your open water swim race...

IRON Tips The Endurance Store

The Endurance Store Swim Club provides you with simple swim training plans throughout the winter months. The plan runs October to October and is completely free. We only ask that you pre-register so that your training plans can be emailed directly.

Registration is free and you may unsubscribe at any time from the Swim Club and stop receiving updates. Overview of the swim plan be seen below, but before you start you need to complete a test to set your swim paces, then register and download the sessions. GO HERE to register for swim club.

Open water swimming can often be a tricky business. So many times I've spoken to people who perform well in the pool, yet they just can't 'produce the goods' on race day, in particular when swimming open water.  When you consider the fact that the swim comes first in a triathlon event, making sure you get off to a good start is critical to get you into a positive frame of mind. If you have a poor swim, you've got the rest of the event to regret it, which won't help your bike and run performance.

To those people who believe that the swim is the least important as it represents the smallest amount of race time, you need to think again. Losing 20-30 minutes in an Ironman swim puts you much further back on the bike, with much more traffic to negotiate and that's a huge chunk of time to make back throughout the race. Think of it this way: If your competitors swim 70 minutes and you swim 90 minutes, what are your chances of catching them on the bike within the next 70-90 minutes of cycling? Yes the swim is the shortest discipline, but the time relative time losses are much bigger than during cycling or running.

The problems associated with open water swimming tend to be more related to the 'open water mass start environment' as opposed to the 'swimming'. By that, I mean that most people are competent swimmers, it's the 'change of environment' which causes the problems. Swimming is a very technical sport, not a minute generally goes by when you're not thinking about your head/body position, your arm action, your catch on the water or your breathing. When you're trying to concentrate on your technique, the one thing you don't need is distractions. Unfortunately for you, if there's one thing tha open water will give you, it's plenty of distractions.

On the morning of the event, you'll be nervous and excited. The adrenaline will be pumping round your body at such a rate, you'll find it hard to focus on anything. There'll be hundreds of other people surrounding you, all feeling the same way and the spectators will be shouting and screaming at you and everyone else as you try to pick out your family for some kind of reassurance.

There'll be music blaring out as you enter the unfamiliar water and try to find some space which doesn't exist. As the hooter goes, there will be what can be best described as panic and carnage. Everyone will start thrashing at the water in a frenzied manner and grabbing at any limb they can find to stay afloat. As they zig zag wildly, in their 'fight or flight' mode, they will swim into and over other swimmers, cause you to swallow murky green water and completely lose your breath and your goggles.

Remember whilst this is happening, you need to make sure you reach and catch the water efficiently, whilst maintaining your balance by keeping your head low etc. Do you get my point?

There's going to be a lot going on, so here's your checklist to make sure you get this right:

Prior to the swim

1. When you arrive / register, go and visit the swim start and check the course. you'll be amazed how many people will be in the water 15 seconds before the start, asking "which way does it go?"

2. You'll find it difficult to sight the buoys on race day due to numbers in the water, so pick markers on the horizon which you can use instead. Is there a building, a hill, a specific tree which you can see more easily?

3. What's the start format, where do you need to be and when? Check notes, ask advice, but don't find yourself panicking, 10 minutes before the hooter goes.

4. Get your wetsuit on with plenty of time and make sure your goggles are fitting correctly. Clean and dry your goggles, then add anti-fog, you don't want them misting up after 3 minutes resulting in you not being able to see.

During the swim

1. When it's your turn to enter the water and start, you'll be so nervous, it's likely that you'll lose all focus. You should have already decided where you will line up, so move to that position. When you get there, relax and breathe, lower your heart rate. At this point, you need to focus on your key processes, as listed below.

2. Pacing is critical, if you start too quickly you will suffer half way through. IGNORE EVERYONE ELSE - THEY WILL GO OFF TOO FAST. keep your head and swim at your own pace from the start.

3. Pick 1-2 technical aspects for the swim and use them in zen like fashion as your focus point. If you focus on those 1-2 points, it will prevent your attention from drifting onto all the other stuff around you. As examples I'd suggest:

  • Full breath in and then exhale under the water (when people get nervous, they tend to hold their breath, don't exhale and the build up of CO2 causes rapid heart rate and breathing after 200m, potentially leading to panic attack.
  • Keep your head down to maintain a balanced position and sight every 4-6 strokes (you should know your sighting references)
  • Keep a steady and smooth rhythm to your stroke, no dead spots
  • Feel and catch the water rather than just slipping

These are just example point, pick 1-2 which are key for you (might be none of the above). The point is that by focusing on these 1-2 things, your focus is on your stroke and not everything else. The others around you are likely to NOT be thinking about their stroke, they'll be the ones thinking about everything else.

4. For god's sake swim straight!! If the swim is 3000m, don't exit the water with 3450m on your Garmin watch!! Set yourself a rhythm of 4-6 strokes then a quick 'sight' to correct your line. Don't just put your head down and swim in a circle. Count it out: stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, sight... This will only work if you know what you're looking for when you lift your head, so refer to the points about about knowing the course and your sighting points.

5. When people bump into you or cross your path, it'll be impossible to ignore but you should not let is affect you in a negative way. It's going to happen and they're not doing it on purpose. Don't fight, don't kick and don't get stressed. Any of those reactions will result in you swimming slower. There's only one thing which will get you to the end in the quickest time possible, that's you focusing on your swim stroke and doing your own thing, not focusing on the other swimmers. Relax, don't panic, hold your focus and swim on at your own pace. There's one thing I can guarantee, fighting them will not get you round the course quicker.

6. Remember that during mass events, the water is likely to be a lot more choppy than normal, so you'll feel as though you're not making progress. YOU ARE making progress, hold your stroke rhythm and keep doing your thing. Relax your arms and turn them over in a fluid movement with no 'dead spots'. Gliding in rough water is difficult, so a fluid turnover is essential to keep forwards momentum. As your hand enters the water, DON'T pause and glide, you should immediately catch and pull to keep moving forwards.

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